Phillips de Pury & Company Closes the Auction Season With Upbeat $36-Million Contemporary Sale in London

Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Olympics" fetched $10,479,938 at Phillips de Pury & Company in London
(Courtesy Phillips de Pury & Company)

LONDON — Phillips de Pury & Company closed out the endless summer art market season with a buoyant £23,376,400 ($36,233,420) sale compared to pre-sale expectations of £15.1-21.1 million ($23.4-$32.7 million). Estimates do not reflect fees, also known as the buyer’s premium, charged by the auction house on all lots that sold. Twenty four of the twenty eight lots offered sold for a stellar buy-in rate by lot of 14 percent and two percent by value. Three lots sold for over a million pounds, seven sold for over a million dollars and two hurdled the $10 million mark. The tally more than doubled the amount set a year ago when 27 lots sold brought £11,243,350 ($17.4 million).

No individual artist records were set but the Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol collaboration, “Olympics” from 1984, perfectly timed for the upcoming games here next month, fetched a record for the short-lived duo at £6,761,250 ($10,470,938), more than tripling its high estimate of £2-3 million ($3.1-4.6 million). At least five anonymous telephone bidders vied for the work as well as one gentleman bidding in the sparsely attended yet newly refurbished salesroom at Howick Place in Victoria. A telephone bidder clinched the mural-scaled prize at a hammer price of £6 million ($9.3 million). It topped the mark for “Third Eye,” set at Phillips de Pury New York in May 2011, when it made $7,026,500.

Even with the skimpy audience and intense competition from the simultaneously scheduled Euro 2012 semi-final soccer match in Warsaw between Italy and Germany, the mood was casually upbeat as auctioneer Simon de Pury graciously offered German and Italian brand beer and a large-screen TV in the lobby during or after the auction. His announcement brought hearty applause.

While Phillips scored well with the handful of high-priced lots, most of them retrofitted with third party guarantees, younger artists fared extremely well, as Tauba Auerbach’s “Binary Uppercase,” in acrylic on wood panel from 2006, a kind of nouveau-Bridget Riley, sold via telephone for £97,250/$150,718, almost double its high estimate of £50,000 ($77,490). London dealer Ivor Braka was one of the underbidders.

Four bidders drove Wade Guyton’s mirrored stainless steel “U Sculpture (v.5)” from 2007, part of an edition of three, to £193,250 ($299 498) — more than double its high estimate of £90,000 ($139,000), and Brazilian artist Adriana Varejao’s beautiful oil on plaster on canvas, “Agnus Dei” from 1990 sold to another telephone bidder for £145,250 ($225,108), nearly matching its high estimate of £150,000 ($232,000).

Like its much bigger competitors, Phillips also offered a handful of third party guarantees and some barely drew notice as evidenced by Sherrie Levine’s cleverly titled “Dada” sculpture in cast bronze from 2008, from an edition of twelve, which sold to that anonymous guarantor on the telephone for £313,250 ($485 474, well within its £250,000-350,000 estimate.

The action picked up again with Warhol’s guaranteed “Gun” silkscreen painting from 1981-82, measuring just 16 by 20 inches and selling for a bullet-proof £892,850 ($1,383,738), well over its £800,000 ($1.2 million) high estimate. At one point in the bidding, Montreal collector François Odermatt, the scion of a famed French art dealer, shouted out a bid of £540,000 but was outgunned by two telephone bidders.

Warhol was much in evidence, as the aristocratic beauty of “Princess Diana” from 1982, sourced from an official palace photograph depicting the young princess in a purple gown and appropriately bejeweled, sold on what appeared to be a single bid at £993,250 ($1,539,538), just within its £900,000-1.2 million estimate. The picture famously sold for a pittance during the Frederick Hughes sale of Warhols at Sotheby’s New York in May 1993 for $57,500 and then again at Sotheby’s London in October 2007 for a heftier £692,500 ($1,410,674). You can’t say it has been a good investment.

Though telephone bidding dominated the proceedings as per usual, and the number of Phillips personnel handling that in the salesroom appeared equal to the number of spectators in the room, there was some floor action.

Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac dueled for Anselm Kiefer’s “Die Woge (The Wave)” from 1995, comprised of canvas cloth, paint, ashes, tin, and cotton wool on board, but lost out to Omer Tiroche, the son of seasoned dealer Micky Tiroche, at £397,250 ($615 658), right in the middle of its £350,000-450,000 estimate.

That was also the case with Gilbert & George’s fifteen-part, hand-dyed gelatin silver prints and gold leaf in artists’ metal frame composition from 1983, which sold to London Old Master dealer Fabrizio Moretti for £115,250 ($178,614), well within the £100,000-150,000 estimate.

“I’m one of the few old master dealers,” said Moretti after the sale in the packed downstairs lobby where refreshments were being served for the big game, “who really likes contemporary art because I believe art is an anti-depressant. You want to put together stuff no matter what the century,” added Moretti, further explaining that he bought the Gilbert & George “for both my private collection and investment.”

But Phillips’s most triumphant moment was the exceptional result for the prime 1981 Basquiat acrylic and oilstick on wood, “Irony of Negro Policeman,” which sold to a telephone bidder for the top lot mark of £8,161,250 ($12,649,938), just over its £8 million ($12.4 million) high estimate. New York dealer Helly Nahmad was the underbidder and left the room the moment after losing the battle for the 72 by 48 inch guaranteed prize to an anonymous competitor.

Even though it trailed Christie’s record-setting Basquiat on Wednesday that made £12.9 ($20.1 million), Phillips's ability to sell another top 1981 picture cannot be understated. Besides, even though its total for the evening was roughly the same as the single work of the record-setting Yves Klein sponge relief that sold at Christie’s, Phillips was the only house this week to exceed its high estimate.

“It’s remarkable to see such strong results,” said Michael McGinnis, worldwide head of Phillips’s contemporary art, “at the end of such a long season. We didn’t see any auction fatigue.”

Click the slide show to see works from the contemporary sale at Phillips de Pury & Company London.